2016-10-01 / Up Close

Fighting Fires, Igniting Minds

Maggie Anderson | photos by Matt Fern

Dave Felice throws out numbers like it’s his job. “One droplet of water expands 1,700 times into steam. This engine carries 750 gallons of water. This hose pumps 130 gallons per minute.” Technically, this is his job, but for Felice, fire inspector and firefighter, the numbers add up to a life’s work in public service.

“It’s been a passion of mine for almost 37 years,” he says of fire fighting and fire safety. “I really enjoy making a difference in people’s lives.”

A State College native, Felice was attending Penn State on a running scholarship — he was the state champ in the mile as a senior in high school — when some friends introduced him to the fire service. “I really liked it,” he says of his time first with the Boalsburg Fire Company and then Alpha Fire Company and Alpha Ambulance, now Centre LifeLink. “I thought, ‘You know what, I’d like to do this as a career.’”

He ended up in Midland, Texas — the first place that called him after a nationwide job search — and stayed there for 11 and a half years after finishing his fire science degree at Midland College. In 1991, he saw that State College was hiring a fire inspector and, eager to move home, applied and got the job. That was 25 years ago.

Today, in addition to his current job as commercial fire inspector with Centre Region Council of Governments, he still goes out on calls with Alpha.

“There are several of us at the code that are also firefighters,” he says. “In State College, we have a lot of automatic alarms; however, we do have major fires occasionally. At least a couple times a day we get called out. We make over 1,000 runs a year with Alpha Fire Company. With the codes, a lot of people think they’re really tough, and they are, but it does prevent a lot of fires. Codes are very proactive as far as preventing fires or lessening the impact should there be a fire. They save lives and property.”

That’s not always the case for wildfires that can rage out of control, threatening whole communities. And Felice gets the chance to help with those as well, as a forest fire warden with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. In 2014, he was awarded a “Wardens Helping in Prevention,” or WHIP award, for his 11 educational programs and 15 years as a fire warden.

“I tell the teachers, ‘Don’t say scared.’ Because if one child starts to cry, it distracts the whole program. So I tell them, ‘We look funny.’ So the kids start laughing, and I’d rather them do that because then we get their attention in a positive way.”

Wildfires do happen in Pennsylvania but, as Felice says, “In Pennsylvania, if you have a 100-acre fire, that’s a monster fire, a huge fire. Out west, all fires are bad. Usually those fires get into the thousand of acres.” Felice has traveled to Montana, Idaho, California, Wyoming, Nevada, Ohio and Minnesota to fight them. The largest fire he ever battled was in Montana in 2000 — it was 179,000 acres and 1,200 firefighters were working to bring it to heel. Last summer, he was in Alaska for two weeks. “Wherever they call us, we go.”

Yet another part of his job prevents fires close to home — and is a lot of fun. “Part of my job is public fire safety education,” he says. “This is our busiest time of the year coming up, and it’s part of my job to go to schools and public groups.” Oct. 9-15 is National Fire Prevention Week, so Felice and his team go out into the community to talk about preventing fires, what to do in a fire and what to expect when firefighters come to your house.

Which is why Fireman Dave, as many parents and teachers call him, spouts those numbers. “This gear weighs 65 pounds — I tell the kindergartners that’s as much as two or three of them hanging off me.” At the Special Olympics in June, Felice was there to talk about fire safety — dressed as Smokey Bear. The public education aspect of his job is what he truly loves, even if it is hot with that 65 pounds of gear on.

“I tell the teachers, ‘Don’t say scared,’” he says. “Because if one child starts to cry, it distracts the whole program. So I tell them, ‘We look funny.’ So the kids start laughing, and I’d rather them do that because then we get their attention in a positive way.”

He works with all ages in his public education programs, even adults, but he gets to use his high school and collegiate experience to work with teenagers as the boys’ cross country head coach at State College Area High School, the same team he ran for many years ago.

“[Jackson] Horner, who was the coach here for years, my old coach, was really influential on a lot of things in my life,” he says. “He passed away last year, but he was a great mentor.” Felice tries to be one for those on his team as well. “We have a really tight-knit team. We really encourage team effort. Everybody encourages each other. Everybody gets to run almost all the time. There’s no sitting on the bench.”

Felice doesn’t take much time to sit on the bench either. Until recently, Felice was educating the public in costume about a different subject — the Civil War. After 24 years as a reenactor, he has retired from that hobby, citing the need to prioritize and make time for his wife Wendy, daughters Emily and Ashley, and stepchildren Anna and Sean. But when he can, he still squeezes in volunteer work with the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society and the Bellefonte Historical Railroad Society, through which he helps to take care of the 1849 structure at the Lewistown Amtrak station and helps run excursions out of Bellefonte, like the uber-popular Santa Express.

It may seem like a very diverse career, but it all comes back to one thing: public service. “It’s a great feeling to be able to make a positive difference in peoples’ lives,” he says. “If it can save one life one time, it’s priceless.” •SCM

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